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I love performing comedy. I’m actress and a singer with a little theater, guitar-playing, and poetry, plus a crum-ton of television-watching in me. I love scripts, words, rhythms and rhymes. But I never saw myself as a standup. Problem was, when I started thinking about performing, the types of comedies being produced and cast by other people usually left something to be desired: Parts for women. Or—and this is the most important—parts for me.
I decided I could wait around until somebody producing a funny project needed my exact type to fill out their cast, or I could take control and write some material I could bring with me anywhere I could bring my guitar. The first comedy song I ever wrote was a parody of ‘90s singer-songwriters called “Jewel’s Got My Gig,” and I started to be asked to perform it at friends’ variety evenings or as a pre-show to events.
I got asked a lot. People started commissioning me, I developed sets, and soon I realized that music is a glorious way to open the door to the world of comedy. Whether it’s a room full of toe-tapping club patrons, or thousands of video views, music can connect with people over and over again. Honestly, I don’t think I could do regular standup. My version of standup is funny music.
So if you like to sing, laugh, and write your own material, here are five categories of funny songs to try.
1. Parody songs
A parody song generally takes the existing melody and style of a popular song, and changes the lyrics in an unexpected and hilarious direction. You’ve probably already written one without knowing it, when you substituted your younger brother’s name in a lyric, or put your favorite inside joke into your school’s fight song. Pick a song lyric and think of a funny way to change it; watch a bunch of Weird Al (the parody master) videos, and let your comedy pen fly.
“Weird” Al Yankovic, “Amish Paradise”
Jimmy Fallon and Paul McCartney, “Yesterday” (Scrambled Eggs)
2. Story songs
Folk songs have been telling stories for literally ever. Societies evolve by oral traditions, and songs are remembered by both the performer and the audience. In the ’60s, the form evolved with pieces like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”; now, concept albums from artists like Eminem and Beyonce take the idea of telling stories to a new stratosphere. Why don’t you start by spinning a yarn (with a beginning, middle and end) and seeing where the rhymes and rhythms lie? Imagine your rapt audience at a campfire or a rap battle—as long as they want to know what happens next, you’re telling a story.
Tenacious D, “Tribute”
Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra, “Girl From the Renaissance Faire”
3. Character-based songs
Some funny songs are funny not because of the lyrics themselves, but because of who or what is singing them. If you have a character you like to play, think about a funny situation they might find themselves in, and a what they might say in that situation. The narrator of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” is a kid who can’t say her S’s, and that’s all it takes to make the whole song charming. Pick your funniest character and let ’em sing!
My Favorites (okay, one of them is me!):
Joanna Parson, “Subway Musician”
Rachel Bloom, “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song”
4. Inappropriate love song
The world can never have enough love songs, and a great way to put a twist on an old impulse is to write a love song that gives your audience a little shock. When Chance the Rapper, Kenan Thompson, and Chris Redd start singing “Come Back, Barack,” we’ve been prepped for a romantic R&B ballad — we don’t expect them to beg the President to come back to the White House. But we love it when it happens. Who or what do you adore so much, you could just burst into song?
SNL, “Come Back, Barack”
Sir Mix-a-lot, “Baby Got Back”
5. “Rant” song
Okay, so you have a problem; something that drives you crazy, that you could go on and on about. That can make people uncomfortable in real life. But chances are , when you put it to melody — or even talk OVER a melody — people will be charmed. Or they may be open to a new opinion (like Lauren Mayer’s thoughts on sexual harassment prevention: ). If we learned anything from Lili Taylor’s character in “Say Anything,” it’s this: complain in musical form and you’ll at least triple the number of people willing to listen.
Scrubs (TV show), “The Rant Song”
Rob Paravonian, “Pachelbel Rant”
JOANNA PARSON is an actress, musician and writer who has been performing in the New York comedy and storytelling world for a bunch of delightful years. Her songs have been heard on radio, at comedy clubs, and through her @ladybandnyc shout-outs. TV: Red Oaks, Law and Order: SVU. @jtparson